Blackhawks

Nick Schmaltz 'playing to full capability' a key reason why Blackhawks' four-line rotation is rolling

Nick Schmaltz 'playing to full capability' a key reason why Blackhawks' four-line rotation is rolling

When the Blackhawks sent Nick Schmaltz down to the American Hockey League on Dec. 4, the goal was to get him acclimated to playing more of the two-way style of hockey Joel Quenneville preaches, and to balance his passing instincts with his shooting ability.

He was there for a little over a month, and just that brief stint has reaped benefits for the Blackhawks' first-round pick in 2014.

After scoring only one goal and three assists in his first 26 games, Schmaltz has five goals and eight assists in the 18 games since he returned to the NHL on Jan. 14, and is a large reason why the Blackhawks' four-line rotation has been clicking over the past month.

"Whatever he did when he went down to Rockford is incredible," said Scott Darling, who stopped 36 of 37 shots in a 4-1 win over the reigning Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins at the United Center on Wednesday night. "Came back with a whole new edge and a whole new intensity, and now you’re seeing the results. He’s playing to the full capability."

Schmaltz added a few more plays to his highlight reel on Wednesday, but he more-so earned brownie points and the trust of his head coach.

After Artem Anisimov went down with a lower-body injury early in the second period, Quenneville was forced to separate the top line that's been on fire, and moved Schmaltz to center on the second line with Artemi Panarin and Patrick Kane.

It was a smooth transition despite not having played there in a while, and it showed quickly.

The 21-year-old rookie hustled back in the neutral zone and stripped the puck away from Penguins forward Jake Guentzel, then fed Kane a quick pass who slipped one past Marc-Andre Fleury for the game's first goal.

"I thought I had a chance at catching him, I just wanted to put pressure on him," Schmaltz said. "I try to do that a lot where I just lift the stick, pull it back, then I saw Kaner there and he made a great shot five-hole."

The Blackhawks took a 2-1 lead into the third period, but the dagger came with just under four minutes to play when Schmaltz made a nifty little move before delivering a perfect backhand pass to Kane, who buried his second of three on the night.

"You don't want to break up that top line when they're playing so well, but wow, what a couple great plays Schmaltzy made on my first two goals," Kane said.

The win gave the Blackhawks their 10th in the last 11 games, and they've scored at least four goals in each of those victories. Schmaltz has played a big hand in that, on both ends of the ice.

"I thought he had a great game, moving back to center, something he hasn't done for us in a while," Quenneville said. "He fit in perfectly with those two guys. He really took advantage of the situation, and really helped our team and our team game with his play. I think the last four games he's really elevated his game to a different level. Big factor again tonight. Great to see. I like that."

The praise didn't stop there.

"I think that's the thing that you notice in his game," Quenneville continued, when asked about Schmaltz's improvements from earlier in the year. "Whether it's his defensive responsibility, backside pressure, stronger on the puck area, more pace to his game. His confidence with the puck and his playmaking ability is his strength. I saw a couple nice plays by him tonight, and it really gives us some options. Him fitting in that hole where (Anisimov) was, we didn't know it was going to be like that. But I liked how he took advantage of it."

With two more assists, Schmaltz extended his point streak to a season-high five games, where he's potted two goals and seven assists total. He's also registered at least a point in eight of his last nine games, and has 12 points during that span.

Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman said recently that Schmaltz's confidence has grown immensely, and that can be attributed to his stint in Rockford. That's all the time he needed.

"He knows he can play now at this level," Bowman said. "I don't think there's any question. He's not just trying to get by, he's trying to make a difference now."

He did again on Wednesday, and without him, the Blackhawks wouldn't be on this hot stretch. 

"We’ve got everyone going right now," Schmaltz said. "Hopefully we can keep this rolling."

Oilers, Blackhawks' play-in round opponent, release training camp roster

Oilers, Blackhawks' play-in round opponent, release training camp roster

Sunday afternoon, the Edmonton Oilers released their Phase 3 training camp roster. Training camps begin on Monday for teams competing in the NHL's 24-team playoffs under the league's Return To Play program. 

The Blackhawks, who were at No. 12 in the Western Conference at the time of the NHL pause on March 12 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, will face the No. 5 Oilers starting Aug. 1 at Edmonton in a best-of-five qualifying round. 

Related: Oiler's Mike Green opts out of NHL's Return To Play program

Edmonton invited 33 players to attend their Return To Play camp.

Forwards Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl headline the team's roster. Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith are among the five goalies listed.

Western Conference teams will head to Edmonton's ICE District hub to prepare for the postseason tournament on July 26.

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How Blackhawks' Corey Crawford's career prepared him for Oilers series

How Blackhawks' Corey Crawford's career prepared him for Oilers series

When the Blackhawks signed Vezina trophy finalist Robin Lehner to a one-year deal last offseason, many thought that would be it for Corey Crawford. They thought Lehner would run away as the No. 1 goalie in Chicago and Crawford would disappear.

Those who still doubt Crawford, a two-time Stanley Cup champion with the Hawks, haven't watched his career very closely. 

Just as he battled to lead the Blackhawks to a Stanley Cup championship in 2015 after suffering an off-ice lower-body injury and just as he battled back to be a reliable last line of defense after multiple concussions the last couple seasons, he battled for the Hawks' net this season. 

Related: How will long layoff affect goalies in NHL's 24-team postseason?

NHL Network analyst Kevin Weekes thinks it's that experience of battling and repeatedly finding his game after long layoffs from injuries that could make him a dangerous opponent for the Edmonton Oilers in the best-of-five qualifying round in the NHL's 24-team postseason kicking off Aug. 1 at Edmonton, assuming Crawford is the Hawks' starting goalie. The Blackhawks begin their training camp for the postseason on Monday.

"For somebody that hasn't gone through (injuries) before, there's so many unknowns and then maybe there's question marks and the mental elevator starts creeping up at times in ways that aren't helpful," Weekes, a former NHL goalie, told NBC Sports Chicago over the phone. "But the fact that he's had that experience in battling back from injury and coming back a long way and having extended layoffs, this isn't foreign to him. 

"So in that respect, it should be beneficial in a weird way and also give him the chance to heal up and rest up even more by way of this extended pause. I think that those things play in his favor. Those things should be playing in his favor for sure."

Related: How Blackhawks can beat Oilers with 'wealth of success' in qualifying round

This year, Crawford competed hard for the No. 1 goalie role. Leading up to the NHL pause on March 12, he had made 39 starts (16-20-3) and had a goals-against average of 2.77 with a .917 save percentage before the Hawks traded Lehner to the Vegas Golden Knights ahead of the trade deadline. With the Blackhawks, Lehner made 31 starts (16-10-5) and had a goals-against average of 3.01 and a .918 save percentage. Both tenders' numbers were hurt by an often struggling Hawks defense this year.

"I've always been a huge advocate of Crow. Crow's had an excellent run in Chicago," Weekes said. "I think the biggest challenge for him, which we all know, which isn't a state secret, (there's) just been some health challenges and he always battles back. Crow's a guy that'll battle and he's been able to come a long way back and rediscover his game, which is hard to do after layoffs, let alone multiple ones. 

"And I think this year, once he got back, talking to their goalie coach in Jimmy Waite and you got to credit Jimmy because he's put in so much work to be able to regroup Crow, numerous times. So this season specifically, when he first started, it was a little bit of a slow start as expected because he had such an extended layoff. 

Related: What's Blackhawks' key to victory over Oilers in NHL play-in series?

"But, I really think with them having Robin Lehner, it really helped because they didn't have to throw Crow right into the fire. And then Crow hit his stride and he's playing really well. ... He's played really well, coming down the stretch he looked excellent as well and that's great news for the Hawks because they're going to need him, especially in a shorter series in this play-in round against Edmonton and the fact that Crow has the experience that he does, he's played in huge games. 

"He's played in, obviously, Stanley Cup (finals). He's a winner, he's not afraid of the big stage. He's not afraid to play in a place like Chicago, he thrives on that and not to mention, internationally for Team Canada. I think where they're concerned, as far as his ability and his talent, he just looks like himself right now, which is great news for the Hawks and I know that his teammates have a lot of confidence in him so as long as he's able to... I know he's been on the ice, as long as he's healthy and feeling good they've got a good shot because he's been there before and he's done it before. 

"It's a unique opportunity for him and for his team, but he can lean on that experience of having played in big spots like the Stanley Cup Final and playoffs for years. That could be an advantage for the Hawks actually in that respect."

It's not clear who will start in net yet for the Oilers. Mikko Koskinen was 18-13-3 this year with a 2.75 goals-against average and a .917 save percentage and Mike Smith was 19-12-6 with a 2.95 goals-against average and a .902 save percentage. 

Although some of their numbers may measure up to Crawford's, neither goalie's journey can compare to his.

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